"I'm under contract, so I have to play my contract out. I can't do anything about that." -- Andre Johnson, 11/17/2013
Truth be told, we should have seen this coming.
Back in November of last year, in the waning minutes of another soul-crushing 2013 defeat, this one at the hands of the immortal Matt McGloin and the Oakland Raiders, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub got into an argument on the Texans' sideline. I guess Johnson zigged when Schaub looked for a zag, Schaub said something to Andre (at a point in the season when Schaub had no room to bitch at a towel boy, let alone the greatest player in franchise history), and Andre flipped out.
The whole scene went next-level when Andre Johnson stormed off the field and into the locker room with a minute still left in the game. At the time, considering that we were a month removed from the Ed Reed Fiasco, two weeks removed from Gary Kubiak's stroke on the sideline and four days removed from DeAndre Hopkins having a penis show up on his Instagram account, Andre's act actually felt logical, as if we were casually stepping into the next circle of football hell.
With some time, some distance and the purging of the previous coaching regime, normal has become the new normal again, and when Andre Johnson complains, everyone listens.
Tuesday afternoon, we all listened.
At a presentation of a charity check for $30,000 to the local Women's Center, Johnson met with the media for the first time since skipping out on the first round of minicamp last week. Speculation was rampant as to where Johnson may have been, since normally (unless he's holding out for a new contract, as he did briefly in 2010) he attends these types of things.
As it turned out, Johnson was in Houston, working out on his own. Also, as it turns out, he doesn't seem to be nearly as big a fan of some of the Texans' latest moves as the draft pundits and league experts are.
Here are Andre Johnson's comments Tuesday, courtesy of Channel 2:
The money shot (among several money shots) in all of that: "I've been thinking about things this offseason. Kind of wonder if this is still the place for me."
Okay, so let's assess the situation and at least attempt to answer the key questions in what could be a very sad chapter in the Andre Johnson, Texan Legend saga, shall we?
What is causing all this? Plain and simple, a combination of rampant losing and Andre Johnson staring his athletic mortality in the face. At age 32, Johnson is right at the magical age for the wide receiver position, where marquee wideouts tend to see a decline in productivity (unless their last name is "Rice"). Johnson knows he only has a few more seasons to make a deep (and hopefully successful) playoff run. He also knows there is virtually zero chance of that happening in Houston, especially in light of the moves made by Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien this offseason, wherein they've let almost every veteran free agent walk, cut Owen Daniels and Danieal Manning for cap purposes, and chosen not to draft a franchise quarterback in the first round of the draft. Nothing this team has done indicates a plan with 2014 (or 2015, for that matter) success as the likely outcome. This team is building inside out; their first four picks in the draft (Clowney, Su'a-Filo, Fiedorowicz, Nix) pretty well indicate this. As far as Andre Johnson goes, it's pretty simple -- this isn't about money, it's about "football quality of life." If he's going to have to adjust to a brand-new coaching staff at his age, he'd rather do it with a team that is ready-made to play in early February.
What can the Texans do to fix it? Honestly, if the goal is to keep Andre Johnson, unless they can somehow turn back time and draft Johnny Manziel or somehow doctor a picture to depict Mike McCarthy making out with a transvestite and extort Aaron Rodgers out of the Packers, the only thing the Texans can do is wait this out and hope Andre Johnson cools off. The team still holds the cards. When you sign a long-term deal and then get as many subsequent restructuring bonuses as Andre Johnson has, you relinquish a lot of your control in a situation like this. If Andre Johnson wants out, sadly, his best avenue is to be a giant pain in the ass, and honestly, I don't know if he has that club in his bag. We shall see.
Oddly, pain in the ass or no pain in the ass, the move that would align most closely with what the Texans have done so far this offseason (again -- shedding veteran salaries, bidding adieu to expensive veteran free agents, signing "lunch-pail" one-year free agents, drafting trench players) would be to move Johnson for a decent-to-high draft pick, if the deal were available. This team is obviously going through a multiyear rebuild, and as such (removing emotion from the situation), Johnson is worth more to them in the form of a good draft pick than he is catching 80 balls from Ryan Fitzpatrick and helping the Texans go 7-9 for two more years.
So if it's time to move on, what are the salary cap ramifications for the Texans? This is actually the one bit of good news in all of this -- if the Texans were to move Andre Johnson, they would realize a cap savings of $3,680,417, the difference between his $15,644,583 cap figure in 2014 and the $11,964,166 the Texans would get hit with in dead money if they sent Johnson somewhere else (or released him, which would happen only if Johnson began organizing nightly orgies with the wives of the entire coaching staff).
If the Texans were to look at trading Johnson, who are the most viable trade partners? While the cap ramifications on the Texans end of trading Johnson would be beneficial, the fact of the matter is, they would need to find a trade partner who can absorb Johnson's $10 million salary in 2014 into their cap, although restructuring that $10 million salary into part salary/part "signing bonus" could provide some wiggle room for a team with cap issues. Based solely on need at wide receiver and/or a belief that they can win this season, I would list these teams as possible trade partners for the Texans (in order of cap space remaining):
Cleveland Browns $30,537,310 Cincinnati Bengals $26,285,586 Philadelphia Eagles $19,957,471 Indianapolis Colts $16,736,041 Green Bay Packers $15,015,830 Seattle Seahawks $10,906,190 New England Patriots $10,255,799 Baltimore Ravens $7,363,973 Kansas City Chiefs $4,312,068 Carolina Panthers $3,334,914 San Francisco 49ers $633,469 Denver Broncos ($1,438,997)
We can immediately eliminate a handful of these teams based on cap space constraints that no amount of fiddling around with deals (Johnson's or others') can address, especially with an entire rookie class still to sign. So let's shave those teams off, and get down to this revised list:
Cleveland Browns $30,537,310 Cincinnati Bengals $26,285,586 Philadelphia Eagles $19,957,471 Indianapolis Colts $16,736,041 Green Bay Packers $15,015,830 Seattle Seahawks $10,906,190 New England Patriots $10,255,799
Of this list, I see Seattle and New England as unlikely just because the cap space would still be very tight, even with a restructured deal for Johnson. Green Bay I see as unlikely because a deal like this (decent draft choice for aging player) is very un-Green Bay-like. The Colts I see as unlikely because they're in the same division as the Texans, although if a team was willing to give up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson last season, you have to call them, right?
This leaves us Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Philadelphia makes sense in that this would be a classic, bold Chip Kelly move, and they have a need at wide receiver after letting DeSean Jackson go in the offseason. Also, roughly 51 of the 53 players on the Eagles roster were once Houston Texans. With nearly $20 million in cap space, the Eagles can easily take on Andre's deal.
Logically, Cincinnati has to feel like they're very close to winning and that another weapon with which to surround Andy Dalton could help validate their decision not to draft a quarterback to compete with him earlier in the draft. (They drafted A.J. McCarron in the fifth round.) After New England and Denver, by definition, the Bengals are the closest thing to a perennial playoff team in the AFC over the past few years.
Now, before you laugh at Cleveland, just know that they have a buttload of cap space, an owner who is all about splashy moves, a rookie quarterback who needs a veteran wide receiver, a real chance at winning their division, and a current go-to wide receiver who is about to get suspended for drugs, possibly for the whole season. Also, Cleveland has extra picks in 2015 thanks to the draft day trade with the Bills that brought Buffalo Sammy Watkins.
On paper, Cleveland makes a ton of sense for the Texans.
Hopefully, it doesn't come to that. Hopefully, Tuesday afternoon was just Andre Johnson venting, the media providing him a couch to vent to his collective, 4-million-person therapist.
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"Now I'm on my third head coach, that's something I give thought to," Johnson said. "I just look over my career; is it a place? I've only been to the playoffs twice. I think we've only had three winning seasons, two 8-8 seasons. I don't think any player wants to experience that.
"...You go through a rebuilding process, some people say it's not rebuilding, some people say it's a quick fix. Everybody has their own opinion. But I've been through this more than once. When I make my decision, I'll make my decision."
All due respect, Andre, the Texans hold the cards right now. Unless you plan on hanging it up for good, the decision will be theirs.